In the heart of the American West lies Montana. This wonderful state is known by various nicknames, such as “Treasure State” and “Land of the Shining Mountains.” And calling it a paradise for anglers wouldn’t even do it justice. Fishing in Montana paints a pretty vivid picture.
The horizon here is framed by peaks and clear skies, while the glacier-fed streams of the Rocky Mountains teem with Trout. The legendary Yellowstone River meanders through the landscape, supported by other iconic rivers such as the Madison, Big Hole, and Bighorn. Beyond those, Montana is home to alpine lakes and the expansive Fort Peck Reservoir. So, whether it’s Walleye and Pike you’re looking for, or you’re itching for a fly fishing adventure, you’ve come to the right place.
As you plan your fishing trip in “Big Sky Country,” you’ll want to know everything Montana has to offer. In this guide, we’ll walk you through the state’s waters, its age-old fishing techniques, top spots, and fish species. Read on to learn more!
Top Montana Fish Species
When it comes to fishing in Montana, it’s hard to pick where to begin. It’s a haven for a variety of species, where each potential target has long carved its niche. Let’s explore some of the most interesting game species you can find in the iconic rivers and depths of alpine lakes.
Smallmouth Bass, often referred to as “Smallies,” are a beloved species among Montana natives. Everyone knows that Smallies possess a fierce fighting spirit once hooked. They stand out for their aggressive bites, often leaping out of the water and offering an exciting visual spectacle.
The typical size of Smallmouth Bass in Montana ranges from 12 to 16 inches. They hang out in warmer, clearer waters near rocky structures and submerged objects. In general, locals look for areas where Smallies can ambush their prey, such as lakes and slower-moving rivers.
The warmer waters and abundant structure of Fort Peck Reservoir create ideal conditions for Smallmouth Bass fishing in Montana. Alternatively, you can check out Canyon Ferry Lake. Make sure to pack a good selection of artificials, including jigs, plastic worms, crankbaits, and topwater lures.
Brook Trout are cherished by anglers for their stunning appearance, dazzling colors, and distinctive marble patterns along their backs. “Brookies” patrol colder, clear waters, indicating a healthy aquatic environment. In essence, they thrive in unpolluted waters.
In Montana, Brook Trout usually measure between 7 and 12 inches in size, although you can come across a larger fish. Look for cold streams and lakes, especially in wild areas. Get ready for some fly fishing, since these Trout are surface feeders. Traditional spinning gear and a variety of baits, including worms, spinners, and small spoons, is also effective.
Of course. Brook Trout are also among the most popular Montana ice fishing targets, so you can target them year-round!
Brown Trout are an illustrious target for anyone fishing in Montana. “Brownies” are notoriously crafty and sometimes challenging to land. However, their elusive nature and stunning appearance make them a rewarding catch.
Typically, they range from 12 to 20 inches, though trophy-sized Brownies are always possible. Locals fish for them in larger, more turbulent rivers where the fish often hide under cover.
Brown Trout are also celebrated for their significant role in fly-fishing culture in the state, especially in the Big Hole and Missouri Rivers. There are various popular fly patterns, including nymphs, streamers, and dry flies, depending on the season and current hatch. If fly fishing isn’t your thing, you can always experiment with spinning gear and live bait, with early mornings and late evenings proving to be the most productive times.
Fishing for Lake Trout in Montana often involves exploring the cold, deep waters of larger lakes. “Lakers” are recognized by their forked tails and light spots against their darker bodies. They can reach pretty impressive sizes, here, typically ranging from 18 to 30 inches. Lake Trout prefer deeper waters because they seek refuge from the surface, where the temperatures are usually higher.
In order to get a Laker to bite, Montana anglers often go trolling with downriggers or weighted lines to reach the right depths. When the season allows, you can also try jigging with heavy jigs in spots such as Fort Peck Reservoir and Flathead Lake.
Rainbow Trout is another perfect target for any avid fly fishing enthusiast. And Montana is the ideal place to find them. Rainbows are practically synonymous with fly fishing, especially with nymphs, dries, and streamers. However, spin fishing, trolling, and even bait fishing can also be pretty effective if you know where to look.
A typical Montana Rainbow Trout measures between 14 and 20 inches. These gorgeous fish are highly adaptable, so you can find them pretty much anywhere – from mountain streams to lakes and rivers. Some of the best spots to hunt for Rainbows include the Missouri River, particularly the section downstream of Holter Dam, and the Madison River with its classic western Trout streams.
Fishing in Montana isn’t limited to Trout and Bass, though. The state’s waters also hold a good number of Northern Pike, notorious predators known for their exciting battles of wits and reflexes. Add to that their impressive, elongated bodies and sharp teeth, and these fish hardly need an introduction!
In general, Pike in Montana range from 20 to 40 inches and live in lakes and slow-moving rivers. Fort Peck Reservoir and Flathead Lake are widely recognized for their outstanding Northern Pike fishing opportunities. Locals cast large, flashy lures, including spoons, spinners, and swimbaits. However, you can also fly fish for Northern Pike if you’re feeling particularly adventurous.
How to Go Fishing in Montana
The possibilities that fishing in Montana offers are as rich and diverse as the landscapes themselves. Anglers navigate through different angling types and styles, each providing a unique connection to the local waters and fish species. Now that you know what to target, let’s explore these types of fishing in more detail:
Montana Fly Fishing
A time-honored tradition, fly fishing in Montana is a testament to the state’s cultural and natural heritage. Primarily, fly anglers set their sights on various Trout species, including Rainbow, Brown, and Cutthroat. We bet, though, that you can name a dozen more potential catches.
The Madison River, with its productive flows and healthy insect life, is a mecca for Montana fly anglers. Other noted bodies of water include the Bighorn, Gallatin, Blackfoot, and, of course, the iconic Yellowstone River. Specific spots, such as the Flathead River system, offer chances at Bull Trout for those anglers with the requisite catch card!
For some, fly fishing is about the anticipation of the next bite. For others, it’s more about solitude and gorgeous views. The key here is mastering various casting methods, understanding hatches, and choosing the right fly patterns. If you haven’t tried it yet, the Montana Nymph is an obligatory choice when fishing here.
Montana Spin Fishing
Spin fishing in Montana stands out for its versatility, providing anglers with a universal method of catching fish. The adaptability of this technique is especially effective for those who are just getting to know the local waters or starting out on their fishing career.
Techniques for spin fishing can range from casting and retrieving various lures to trolling behind a moving boat. Spoons, spinners, and soft plastics all find a place in anglers’ tackle boxes, depending on what you’re after. Lake Trout, Bass, Pike, and even the rare Salmon are among the potential catches here, along with Panfish.
Montana Ice Fishing
The crisp, clean air and the solitude of a frozen lake mixed with the lively world underneath the ice is what makes ice fishing in Montana so great. You can target Trout in Hebgen Lake or head to Canyon Ferry Lake for a healthy dose of Yellow Perch when the waters ice over. Holter Lake is another option, where you can get your hands on a little bit of everything.
Techniques for ice fishing often involve jigging with lures or bait to entice whatever’s moving slowly under the ice. Locals pack an auger to drill through the ice, an ice shelter to shield from the elements, and specially designed ice fishing rods and reels. Ice picks and cleats are also essential.
Montana Charter Fishing
Booking a Montana fishing charter is the best way to guarantee a productive time on the water. Under the guidance of a seasoned professional, you’ll benefit from the right equipment, a customized boat, and a wealth of local knowledge.
The tactics you’ll employ on a Montana charter expedition may range from trolling with heavy tackle for Lake Trout to jigging or casting with lighter rods for Northern Pike and Walleye. Fishing with a guide is also great for those who want to target specific species, such as the sizable Lake Trout of Flathead Lake or the hard-fighting Northern Pike found in numerous reservoirs.
Top Montana Fishing Spots
Montana boasts 26 rivers, 30 expansive lakes, and a myriad of tributaries and smaller bodies of water. Some alpine lakes are sanctuaries for the rare Arctic Grayling, giving Montana a unique edge in the angling world. If that’s not enough, numerous Trout rivers here have achieved the coveted Blue Ribbon designation. Let’s take a closer look at what each part of the state has to offer.
This is where mountains and forests intertwine with modern towns and resorts. It’s no surprise, then, that the region stands as the perfect destination for a productive trip. If you want to avoid the crowds, check out Kootenai River, Lake Elwell, Fresno Reservoir, or Koocanusa. However, these popular spots also await:
- Flathead Lake. Stretching out from 185 miles of shoreline, this is one of the largest lakes in Montana. Anglers can land Kokanee Salmon, Yellow Perch, Mountain Whitefish, and impressive Lake Trout. For Salmon enthusiasts, Big Arm and Elmo Bay are the places to be.
- Swan Lake. Here, warmwater and coldwater species converge. Spanning 10 miles, it hosts species like Cutthroat, Brook, and Rainbow Trout, along with Northern Pike and Yellow Perch.
- Missouri River. This Blue Ribbon Trout stream stretches 90 miles from Holter Dam to Cascade. While it’s known for Brown and Rainbow Trout, species like Walleye, Yellow Perch, and Channel Catfish prevail further downstream.
- Canyon Ferry Lake. Located just 15 miles from Helena, this 35-mile-long lake attracts many anglers with its array of fish including Rainbow Trout, Yellow Perch, Northern Pike, and more.
The eastern stretch of Montana is known for its warmer waters. That being said, it’s home to an impressive array of fish including Walleye, Catfish, and Smallmouth Bass. One standout location is the Fort Peck Reservoir, which spans an impressive 130 miles. In addition to that, it’s also home to over 40 distinct fish species, including Northern Pike and Lake Trout.
Alongside the Fort Peck lies the Bighorn River which goes for 461 miles. Note that sections of the river go through the Crow Indian Reservation where you won’t be able to fish.
While less numerous in terms of fishing locations, Southern Montana guarantees rich fishing opportunities. The Yellowstone River, flowing directly from the heart of the Yellowstone National Park, stands as the longest free-flowing river in the US. It spans over 670 miles and touches three states. As it flows downstream, the river’s fishing menu shifts to warmwater species.
The Clark Canyon Reservoir isn’t far from Yellowstone, either. It’s a 5,000-acre playground for Rainbow Trout fly fishing enthusiasts. And this is all complemented by the 150-mile Big Hole River and other gems like Georgetown Lake. With the Gallatin, Beaverhead, Jefferson, and Ruby Rivers, too, you’re sure that you won’t be lacking places to wet your line.
The cinematic charm of western Montana’s landscape was immortalized in the film “A River Runs through It.” The Blackfoot River took center stage and, although it has faced challenges, such as the illegal stocking of Northern Pike, its allure remains the same.
Tourists often flock to the Blackfoot, but anglers will be more interested in the pristine rivers and creeks dotting the region. For example, the 50-mile Rock Creek stands as a natural counterpart to the more famous Clark Fork River. Its esteemed Blue Ribbon status is a testament to the fishing essence of western Montana.
Montana Fishing Seasons
The question isn’t just where to cast a line in Montana, but also when. The short answer is, whenever you want. In winter, Montana is cloaked by snow and ice. A lot of locals drill through the frozen surface of Hebgen Lake for Trout and Whitefish. Come spring, and Montana’s rivers, lakes, and streams awaken with the Skwala stonefly hatch, as Trout feed aggressively in the Bighorn.
Summer in Montana is still about Trout, although you can also fish for Pike and Perch in Flathead Lake or the majority of top spots throughout the state. In fall, Montanans chase Brown Trout in rivers like the Yellowstone or Kokanee Salmon in Flathead Lake. So there you have it, whenever you come, you’re in for a treat.
Montana Fishing Rules and Regulations
Before setting out on your Montana fishing adventure, make sure you’re up to date with the local rules and regulations. Here’s a quick list of key things to consider:
- Fishing licenses. A valid fishing license is mandatory when casting a line in Montana. The price may vary depending on where you’re fishing. Always have your license and, in most cases, a conservation permit with you too.
- Additional permits. Depending on what you want to catch, you might need an extra Bull Trout Catch Card or a Paddlefish Tag. Always consult with your guide to make sure you have all the right permits.
- Size and bag limits. The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission takes care of all the regulations regarding how many personal trophies you can take home with you – and how big they can (or must) be.
- Snow run-off impact. Due to snow run-off, Montana’s water levels fluctuate significantly. During these periods, it’s essential to use robust leads. Some regions may be particularly affected, so make sure to discuss with your guide ahead of time.
- Hoot Owl regulations. Some rivers are subject to Hoot Owl regulations, prohibiting fishing after 2 p.m.
- Ice fishing rules. Montana regulations permit only two lines in the water at the same time when ice fishing.
- Vertical jigging bait. As you already know, this technique is pretty popular in the Treasure State. However, keep in mind that using Trout, Salmon, or Whitefish as bait is illegal.
Fishing in Montana: Pines, Peaks, Pike, and More
Fishing in Montana is a dialogue with nature. Here, where the Rocky Mountains cast their shadows, anyone can find something interesting at the end of their fishing line. Montana’s waters invite you not just to fish but to connect with wild rivers, serene lakes, and gorgeous horizons of the Big Sky Country. The question is, are you ready to cast your line?
Have you ever been fishing in Montana? What’s your favorite part of the state? What about the most interesting catch? Let’s chat in the comments below.